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A Blueprint for Corporate Change
The opportunities and challenges of the last 20 years in business have been driven by the application of information technology; the next 20 years will be driven by the application of consciousness.
—Michael Rennie, Principal, McKinsey and Company
When we say that work is meaningless, it generally means different things to different people. For some, boredom has set in or they feel that what they do has no obvious purpose other than a paycheck. For others, it happens when the balance of money made and hours worked goes askew. In some cases defeat sets in when we discover that our employers see us not as human beings but as human resources, movable and expendable pieces on an economic game board. The solutions, then, will vary depending on the circumstance and the person. It can mean changing positions or changing companies or striking out on one's own. Certainly much has been written about such strategies, and they often work—at least for a while. Inevitably, though, for many of us, the discontent will return, perhaps for slightly different reasons but dogging us nevertheless.
It doesn't help that our trust in the intentions of private enterprise remains depressingly low. The stock market's meteoric rise and fall, the spectacular meltdowns of giant companies whose executives made out like bandits, and new economic realities that have more and more people chasing fewer and fewer jobs as work goes overseas or simply disappears, have helped sustain a history of suspicion that business selfinterest is dangerously narrow. A 2001 Yankelovich Monitor survey found that more than two-thirds of sampled Americans believed that companies had little interest in whether their actions were serving the public good. According to a Business Week study the previous year, 72 percent of Americans believed "business has too much power over too many aspects of American life," while two-thirds felt that "large profits are more important to big companies than developing safe, reliable, quality products for consumers." An October 2002 Harris Poll found that more than half of all adults surveyed felt that Wall Street was so focused on making money that it would break laws to do so if it thought it could get away with it.
Some companies don't even try to disguise their motives. In the beleaguered airlines industry, for example, Delta renegotiated a new contract with its rank-and-file employees that included pay cuts and pension limits while guaranteeing executive pensions in the event of a bankruptcy. Employees at American Airlines also agreed to pay cuts, then threatened to rescind their decision when they learned that the company was about to grant big bonuses to its executive management team while creating a bankruptcy-triggered trust fund for them. The company ultimately backed down on the bonuses, kept the fund, and lost whatever goodwill it could have gained from more principled business dealings. It has since made efforts to repair some of the damage, but as these and numerous other examples indicate, the average employee is getting the short end of several sticks.
Against this background of distrust and disingenuousness, I found a rather startling statistic: In a September 2002 "job satisfaction poll" jointly sponsored by SHRM (the Society of Human Resource Management) and USA Today, only 29 percent of a self-selected sample of visitors to USA Today's Web site considered "Meaningfulness of job" as very important to workplace happiness. Only 23 percent said the same of their relationships with coworkers. Both of these percentages were at the bottom of a long list topped by job security, benefits, and "flexibility to balance life and work issues," all legitimate concerns. Human resource professionals polled in the same study had roughly the same response when asked what they thought was most important to an employee's on-the-job experience; only 18 percent chose meaningful work. How sadly right they were.
What are we to make of this? Have necessity and reality turned us into a nation of workplace mercenaries—it doesn't matter the job, so long as we're paid? Do we end up "going for the money" because we don't think we can get any other kind of satisfaction? Have honor and dignity disappeared completely from the work that we do? Would it be a big surprise if they had?
In the 1972 classic The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, Peter Berger tackled the impact of bureaucracy, technology, and economics on individual consciousness, addressing the issues of honor and dignity in a chapter entitled "The Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor." In it he wrote:
The concept of honor implies that identity is essentially, or at least importantly, linked to institutional roles. The modern concept of dignity, by contrast, implies that identity is essentially independent of institutional roles.
In a world of honor, the individual discovers his true identity in his roles, and to turn away from the roles is to turn away from himself.... In a world of dignity, the individual can only discover his true identity by emancipating himself from his socially imposed roles—the latter are only masks.
Reading these words deepened my understanding of why we have such conflicted feelings about work. If the companies we work for show little evidence of truly humane management or social/environmental/ cultural/global conscience, then what incentive do we have to identify positively with them? What would it say about us to buy into their narrow worldview? Perhaps this is why there is such cynicism in the workplace. The implied—and partially articulated—consensus is that we all have to play this dysfunctional game to survive, and by acknowledging the ironies and shared miseries, we stay sane while pretending that we don't really care. In fact it may be the "emancipating" force of our own dignity that brings us to such a cynical brink. It's where we save face.
At the same time, a significant undercurrent of desire exists that work needs to be more than it is. A 2002 study by two consulting firms, Towers Perrin and Gang &Gang called "Working Today: Exploring Employee's Emotional Connection to Their Jobs," found that while senior executives accurately predicted the negative emotional mood of their workforce, they failed to diagnose the right reasons. They overestimated the influence of salary, benefits, job security, and management relations, and underestimated the importance of workload, self-confidence, professional development, recognition, and "feeling connected" to one's work.
Perhaps the way to reconcile the seemingly contradictory findings of the studies mentioned above—one group seeking more "connection" with their work and another who couldn't care less—is that either we are finally waking up to the fact that our jobs offer little to meet our deeper needs for community, self-expression, and service, or we have simply abandoned the idea altogether that work can be much more than a paycheck, thankful, in fact, that it's at least that. Have we been conditioned by society and the dominant corporate paradigm to expect so little from our labors? What will it take for more of us to become proud of where we work and find meaning in what we do?
The Emergence of "Conscious" Business
Despite all the evidence that workplace troubles are as widespread as they've ever been, the terms "conscious business" and "conscious organization" are showing up more often in the lexicon of business speak. They imply an awakening of awareness, a broadening of perspective, a dynamic sense of evolving. They provide a framework for companies and executives to see themselves and their potential from a different point of view.
For a growing number of us, it is no longer enough to exercise our natural skills in the capacity of our jobs. We want to work for companies we believe in, that treat us like human beings, where the bottom line is more than just the next quarter's sales target. In imagining an ideal employer, one that I would want to work for, two wishes come to mind:
1. It serves a "triple" bottom line—social, environmental, and financial—and assigns equal priority to each. Such a commitment can infuse each job and each position in that company with meaning and purpose beyond the typical punch in/punch out routine. This can have a powerfully motivating influence on those who work there.
2. It serves the emotional, psychological, and even spiritual needs of its employees. I'm not suggesting that we should expect our employers to be our therapist or surrogate family, but that they actively create workplace environments where we feel safe to be ourselves, inspired to bring more of who we are to what we do. Of course, companies can't make their employees act in such a manner, no matter how benevolent their efforts; that responsibility ultimately is ours. But it's a whole lot easier to answer that call when a company has systems and policies in place that reflect authentic commitment to employee dignity and well-being.
Leadership consultant Richard Barrett has been working with such ideas for years and came up with an evolutionary model of corporate consciousness based loosely on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, which he describes in his book Liberating the Corporate Soul. Following is how he described them to me:
Level One—Survival Consciousness
This level focuses on financial matters and organizational growth. It includes such values as maximizing profit and shareholder wealth and ensuring employee health and safety. Potentially limiting aspects of this level are generated from fears about survival, leading to such behaviors as excessive control, short-term focus, and exploitation.
Level Two—Relationship Consciousness
Level Two emphasizes the quality of interpersonal relationships between employees and customers/suppliers. It includes values such as open communication, conflict resolution, customer satisfaction, and mutual respect. At the same time, manipulation, blame, and internal competition are more characteristic of companies operating at this level. Entrepreneurship can be low.
Level Three—Self-Esteem Consciousness
Companies at this level are focused on improving work methods and the delivery of services and products using "best practice" systems and processes. "Corporate fitness" is an apt mantra for such businesses. Championed values include productivity, efficiency, excellence, professional growth, and skills development. The potentially limiting aspects of this level result from systems problems and control issues, leading potentially to long hours, arrogance, excessive bureaucracy, and complacency.
Level Four—Transformation Consciousness
This is the "tipping point" for companies motivated by a renewed vision and mission, when control, fear, privilege, and fragmentation give way to trust, truth, equality, and unity. Level Four focuses on continuous renewal and the development of new products and services. It emphasizes such values as accountability, employee participation, teamwork, personal development, and information sharing to overcome the potentially limiting aspects of Levels One to Three.
Level Five—Organization Consciousness ("Internal Cohesion")
The emphasis has now shifted to "corporate well being" and creating an internal sense of community spirit where employees can grow and creativity can flourish. Establishing trust, diversity, integrity, honesty, shared values, cooperation, commitment, fairness, and mutual accountability become the measures of success.
Level Six—Community Consciousness ("Making a Difference")
At this level the emphasis has shifted once again, this time to include a more outwardly oriented perspective that includes deepening and strengthening relationships with customers, suppliers, and a company's local community. Values such as customer collaboration, partnering, strategic alliances, and community involvement are supported, while commitments are made to voluntary environmental and social audits and ensuring long-term sustainability. Internally, Level Six companies focus on employee fulfillment, leadership development, mentoring, and coaching.
Level Seven—Global/Society Consciousness ("Service")
The company has "self-actualized" by committing to help resolve social, human rights, and environmental issues beyond its local community. The focus shifts more deeply to vision and ethics, forgiveness and compassion, and a search for truth and wisdom.
In this model, the first three states reflect different levels of selfinterest; most of the energy is focused inward. The fourth is the critical point at which a company realizes the limitations of the old operational structure and opens itself to a new one, applying fresh approaches to management and operations. The final three levels represent stages of service to the common good, which still includes the well-being of the company but now attended to in a different way than in earlier stages. Barrett makes it clear that no one area—neither "service" nor "survival"—should be emphasized over another for a company to be truly healthy. As a company evolves, there will still be a need for efficiency and control, for example, only (in this model) not at the expense of other more humane and outward-reaching goals. At what level would you place the company you work for?
Barrett's model is similar to Spiral Dynamics, a theory of human development based on the work of Dr. Clare Graves and further developed by Dr. Don Beck. Spiral Dynamics organizes humanity and individuals along an eight-stage continuum of psychological and spiritual evolution, from instinctual/survival to what it calls "integrative." Each stage is based on beliefs and values that are often unconscious. People can and do draw from different levels when dealing with the challenges of daily life—for example, doing what we're told at work while also advocating more thoughtful policies—but one psycho/emotional tendency is usually dominant. The current thinking among those who have studied this theory is that humanity as a whole is poised on the edge of a major shift in collective consciousness.
The thing that I find most interesting about these two models is that they suggest that companies evolve and respond to changes in their environment in ways that are similar to what individual people do, each wrestling with the influence and momentum of aging mind-sets while inexorably drawn to more "advanced" states of being. Their destinies, in fact, are intertwined, for when it comes to corporate transformation and meaningful work, organizational and personal change are inseparable.
Still, models are models and theories are theories (and, as we will see later in the book, corporations are not really people). "Conscious business" doesn't happen on a blackboard; it's created intentionally, over time, with high-level commitment and broad participation that can only happen when companies get real with their employees about what's at stake and what they are willing to do, and when each of us responds with equal authenticity. It is not a modest challenge.
The poet David Whyte, who has spoken eloquently on the subject of work and personal transformation, writes in Crossing the Unknown Sea:
It is difficult to be creative and enthusiastic about anything for which we do not feel affection. If the aims of the company are entirely fiscal, then they will engage those whose affections are toward the almighty dollar. If they have a range of qualities or a sense of creative engagement ... they may get in return something more worthwhile from their people.... [Companies] must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden, heartfelt qualities into the workplace. A way that doesn't make them feel manipulated or the subject of some five-year plan. They must ask for a real conversation.
Excerpted from The Workplace Revolution by MATTHEW GILBERT. Copyright © 2005 Matthew Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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PART 1 The Hope
CHAPTER 1 A Blueprint for Corporate Change
CHAPTER 2 The Hero's Journey at Work
PART 2 The Challenge
CHAPTER 3 Time and Money: The Endless Quest
CHAPTER 4 The Soulless Company
CHAPTER 5 The Grip of Corporate Culture
CHAPTER 6 Personal Values and Corporate Mind
PART 3 The Practice: A Path for Companies
CHAPTER 7 The Emergence of Corporate Integrity
CHAPTER 8 Seven Steps to Corporate Transformation
PART 4 The Practice: A Path for Individuals
CHAPTER 9 Reclaiming Our Authentic Self
CHAPTER 10 Work from the Inside Out
PART 5 Conscious Business
CHAPTER 12 Workplace Wisdom
CHAPTER 11 The Whole-Self Workplace